With the boat back beneath the blind we again re-set the decoys. While making the adjustment several fights of birds tried to pitch into the spread. Once we finished we climbed back into the blind and get ready.
It didn’t take long for the first group to drop in over the trees of the outer island. Four mallards set their wings and ditched air as they cleared the last cypress. Tommy fired first crumpling a hen my first shot found nothing, the second did no better. I pulled off the bird I had twice missed and swung on a fat drake that was trying to climb back over the trees. I squeezed the trigger.
In the rush and confusion of chasing cripples, getting wet, and retrieving my friend I had forgotten to put the third shell in my gun. Tommy had made the same mistake leaving him with only one shot. But he had made his count.
Even though the birds had been well within range when he dropped the greenhead the wind was now so strong that the downed bird was quickly drifting out of the hole. Tommy scampered out of the blind.
“Load mine.” He called out to me as he waded fast toward the mallard.
I finished loading my gun, double checked the safety and placed it in the corner. I rummaged through Tommy’s bag and withdrew threes shells. I was closing the action when he called up from below.
“ON THE LEFT!” he shouted.
Looking up I saw a wad of ducks bank hard and the flutter of several dozen wings. I shouldered Tommy’s gun and flock shot like a child, putting a spoonie drake on the water with the one shell I had managed to get in the gun.
“Nice shot anyway?” Tommy said climbing back into the blind after picking up both birds.
“Thanks But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t aiming at that one.”
Tommy reloaded and we stung the birds on our lanyards.
“Two away” he said as we settled back in our positions.
Another flight of smiling mallards fell in among the decoys with the reckless abandon only shovelers can display. We drew on the flock but let them flush and depart unscathed.
“Good ducks only?” I asked, knowing he agreed before I ever spoke.
“All I’ve killed is good ducks.” He laughed.
The next four flights were spoonbills or jacks. We let each pass and giggled like schoolgirls as they would fall into the spread then explode from the rough water when we yelled “BANG” down from our hide.
A pair of teal made a pass riding the wind from behind us and brought both of our guns up and blasting. We shot so far behind the fleeing birds I doubt they had any idea they had been our targets.
A large groups of pintail taunted us next. Their long necks and pointed tails giving away their identity when they rolled in from the lake. They worked several times and twice or more were well within range but we had gotten greedy. We wanted them in the blocks. They finally settled in on an outside swing, well out of range.
We watched them bob and swim toward the inner island, parts of the group vanishing in the troughs of waves while others road the crests.
The decoys were again tangled and out of sorts. Tommy and I both went out again to make corrections. This time placing the block father apart to prevent tangling and farther upwind to both give the birds a better approach and give us more time between re-sets.
Turning back to the blind the severity of the waves became very clear. The boat was now beating against the supports of the ladder and rising up to hit the floor supports of the deck.
“It’s getting pretty bad.” Tommy said as we again took our places in the blind.
“It is.” I agreed. “But it’s not gonna get any better on the crossing.” I reasoned.
“This wind is supposed to stay up for the rest of the day. We may as well finish out before we make our way back?” I suggested.
“We only need two.” Tommy agreed. “It shouldn’t take that long.”
But it did. Our shooting was awful. Two more groups of teal escaped unharmed and a pair of widgeon made fools of us.
Twice more we had to move the decoys back up wind. Spoonbills and ringnecks continued to present easy targets but we kept letting them go. Mallards, gadwall and pintail in groups of various size were still working the hole regularly. We passed shots we should have taken and missed the ones we shouldn’t have.
Finally we managed to connect on a pair of gadwall and the hunt was done. We picked up the birds quickly and started gathering the now scattered decoys. Waves rolled through the shallow water and we both got our waders overtopped more than once even though the water in front of the blind was no more than bellybutton deep at the most.
Once the decoys were sacked and our guns unloaded we started putting everything back in the boat. A chill was starting to get to me so I slipped my coat back on and pulled my gloves on for the ride.
We positioned everything in the boat as best we could as it rose and fell in the waves. Tommy had to wade us out from the blind and hold us for a bit while I adjusted the motor to shallow run and fired it up.
Coming out of the cut it the scene before us was daunting. The stump field, flats and all the open lake were a sea of frothy whitecaps. The wind and waves would make it impossible to see, much less navigate through the exposed stumps.
We turned south along the outer island and idles in the relatively calm waters along its bank.
“What should we do?’ Tommy asked.
“Well we could go back into the floatroad and see if dad is still in the south blind?” I offered.
“I’m pretty sure I heard them leave about half an hour ago.” Tommy replied.
We studied the waters between us and the camp. It was bad, no two ways about it.
We settled on running south along the island and seeing if the south end of the lake was any better. We figured that at least we could try to cross there where the lake was narrower or maybe even see if cutting back toward the camp from farther upwind might make for a better crossing.
When we hit the southern tip of the island we knew there was not going to be any easy way to get home. The wind was angling straight toward the camp and trying to buck the waves to get to the southern back would be more than we knew the small boat could take.
I told Tommy to get down low in the bow of the boat and would cut our angle so go diagonally through them, heading for the far shore some two miles down from our camp and the nearest point where the waves appeared less harsh. From there we could beach the boat and hike up the steep bank to the blacktop road or nearest house and catch a ride back to the camp. I studied the waves, picked my angle and turned the boat away from the poor protection offered by the outer island.
We quickly learned that speed was not going to be our friend. Trying to plane the boat only made the waves crash harder into us, soaking us with spray and quickly putting standing water at our feet.
I eased the throttle down and rolled through the troughs of the waves until I felt the angle was right then turn us toward the shore. Anything more than a quarter throttle was trouble, anything less and steering was impossible. The force of the waves would shove the small craft off track and into the bottom of the swells f we did not manage some forward progress.
I found the sweet spots in the throttle, backing down and the bow dipped and easing up on it slightly as we crested each wave. Tommy, already fair skinned, was pale as a sheet and I am sure I wasn’t much better.
Progress was slow and the far bank never seemed to get any closer, though I knew from distant landmarks we were in fact making headway. Spray washed over the sides of the boat and a mist from the wind ripping the tops off the waves drenched us to the bone. But we were making it. Slow and steady but we were making it.
I saw the wave coming that was to be our undoing. The term Rogue Wave flashed through my head and I realized that though I had known the concept of such I had never seen one in person. I quickly became aware that I wished I never had.
The bow was pointed into the trough. The rouge wave broke over the bow just as we were about to start climbing the next wave. Somehow I knew we were about to turn over, I could even tell which way the boat would roll.
Tommy was in the bottom of the boat his back toward the bow to keep the spray out of his face. I guess he saw the terror on my face. He looked back over his shoulder just as I shouted.
“We’re gonna roll! Hang on!”
I felt the world go upside down, felt the cold water flood through my clothes and fill my waders. I heard the strange thunking sound of our gear as it slammed into the sides of the boat and I felt the cold metal of the boat gunnel beneath my gloved hand.
Without letting go of the boat I shoved myself out from under the hull as the motor chugged and stopped, the prop spinning slowly to a stop. I saw gas cans and paddles, stingers of ducks and boat cushion floating around me. What I didn’t see was Tommy.
I crawled up on to the overturned bottom of the boat gasping for breath, feeling the cold weight of the water in my waders. I tried to kneel for a better view but as I moved the boat tried to roll again beneath me. I lay flat across the stern and screamed his name.
I hand appeared just then from under the boat. I grabbed it and pulled with all I had. Tommy’s head broke the surface coughing up water and I quickly latched onto his shirt.
“Pull me up.” He sputtered.
I tried but the weight shift again threatened to roll us.
“Hang onto me.” I said gripping his arm and shoulder. Tommy reached out and got hold of my arms and I pulled him up as far as I could, keeping the waves and water out of his face.
We stayed locked like that for a while. Staring into each other’s eyes, not speaking.
“You’ve got to get up here.” I said at last. Again I tried to pull him up but again the boat pitched dangerously.
“Wait.” I said “Let me shift my weight to the other side, then you pull. Ok?”
“OK but don’t let go of me.”
I lowered myself flay onto the hull and stretch my legs out across the opposite side of the boat.
“NOW…PULL!” I shouted as I felt the weight of the water in my waders trying to pull me over. Tommy managed to scramble part way up on the hull, enough at least that his chest was flat on the bottom of the boat and he could grip the edge where the hull turned at a sharp angle.
As he maneuvered himself into position I adjust my weight as best I could to compensate. When it was done I lay at the far back of the boat stretched across the hull such that my legs dangled in the water on one side and I could grip the submerged gunwale on the other. Tommy managed only to get his torso onto the hull but could hang onto the edge of the hull with his legs from the thighs down hanging into the water. Faced opposite directions our bodies stretched perpendicularly across the overturned boat.